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Defiance County has Professional Sports Legacy

July 13, 2022 For sports fans, Defiance County is a shining star in the Midwest. The county has been home to scores of professional athletes from various ball players to some real ringers.

Here’s a look at some of the sports greats from the area.

Defiance High School Baseball Field

Play ball

Defiance County’s baseball legacy starts with Dain Clay, who was born in Hicksville in July 1919. An outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds, Clay’s career included 397 hits, three home runs, 98 RBIs (runs batted in) and a batting average of .258. He played from 1943-46. Clay ranked in the top five in the National League several times in his career. His biggest year was 1945. He ranked first in the league for at-bats with 656. He was third for stolen bases, taking 19. He also placed fourth for hits at 184.

Defiance County’s next baseball great was Ned Garver. Garver was born in Ney on Christmas Day 1925. Garver, a pitcher, played from 1948-61 for four teams (St. Louis Browns, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Athletics and the Los Angeles Angels). He had a career earn-run average (ERA) of 3.73 and pitched 18 shutouts in his career. His batting average was .218. He was on the All-Star team in 1951 for the American League. Garver has the distinction of being the first pitcher in the Major Leagues to ever win 20 games for a team which lost 100 (the 1951 St. Louis Browns). He has been inducted into the St. Louis Baseball Hall of Fame and the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame.

Defiance County would have to wait until 1976 for its next Major League pitcher with Charles “Doug” Bair. Bair, who was born in Defiance in 1949, played in the Major Leagues for 15 seasons and for seven teams (Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland Athletics, Cincinnati Reds, St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit Tigers, Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays). His career ERA was 3.63 with a batting average of .096. During his career, he earned several awards including the National League Player of the Week in 1978 for the Cincinnati Reds. He also earned the Reds’ Johnny Vander Meer Award that same year. Bair was on two World Series Championship teams – the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1984 Detroit Tigers.

Though born in Bryan, the county can claim pitcher Bruce Berenyi. Berenyi, who was Garver’s nephew, graduated from Fairview High School in Sherwood. He was in the Major Leagues from 1980-86. Berenyi originally had been drafted by the Detroit Tigers in 1975, but did not sign with them. He was drafted again in 1976 by the Cincinnati Reds, being the third overall pick in the first round. Overall, Berenyi had an career ERA of 4.03 and pitched five shutouts in his career. His batting average was .197. In 1981, he ranked sixth in the National League for strikeouts at 106. He played for both the Reds and the New York Mets in his career. The 1990s and early 2000s found several Defiance County pitchers turning pro. Rodney Scott Taylor, who was born in Defiance in 1967, played for the Boston Red Sox in 1992-93. Taylor had an ERA of 6.31.

Denny Stark, who was born in Hicksville in 1974, pitched for both the Seattle Mariners (1999, 2001, 2009) and the Colorado Rockies (2002-2004). He had an ERA of 5.81 and batting average of .099.

Defiance High School alumni showed up in several Major League rosters the following years.

Born in Defiance in 1984, Chad Billingsley was the 24th overall draft pick and went to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2003. Billingsley pitched for the Dodgers from 2006-13 and for the Philadelphia Phillies in 2015. In his Major League career, he had a 3.72 ERA and pitched two shutouts. His batting average was .138. He ranked fifth in the National League for strike outs in 2008 and was named to the National League’s All-Star team in 2009. The batting cages at Defiance High School’s baseball complex are named after Billingsley.

Chad Reineke, who was born in Defiance in 1982, pitched for the San Diego Padres (2008), Oakland Athletics (2009) and Cincinnati Reds (2011) during his career. He had a 5.76 ERA and a batting average of .125.

Defiance High School graduate Jon Niese spent most of his career pitching for the New York Mets from 2008-16. He also pitched for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2016. Niese had an ERA of 4.07 and pitched two shutouts in his career. His batting average was .150. In 2010, he was named to the American League All-Rookie Team. One of Defiance High School’s baseball training complexes is named in his honor (the Jon Niese Training Center).

A decade after Reineke and Niese took to the mound came the next pitcher from the area.

Justin Hancock was born in Defiance in 1990 and became a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs in 2018. He had an ERA of 1.46.

The most recent Defiance native to hit the pitching mound is Arthur Warren, who plays for the Cincinnati Reds. He began his career with the Seattle Mariners in 2019. His current ERA is 4.09.

Defiance High School also has had many baseball players be drafted or signed with Major League teams. Among those individuals are: Shay Smiddy of the Tampa Bay Rays, Shea Murray of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Anthony Kidston with the Kansas City Royals, Dace Kime with the Cleveland Indians, Tyler Burgoon of the Seattle Mariners, Christian Snavely of the Toronto Blue Jays, Luke Hagerty of the Chicago Cubs, Andy Smith of the New York Yankees, Richard and Bub Ryan of the Detroit Tigers and more.

On the gridiron

Don Miller was known as one of the Four Horsemen of the University of Notre Dame’s football team. As a halfback, Miller was part of the team that won the 1924 National Title. From 1922-24, he had a total of 22 touchdowns, 1,933 rushing yards and 590 receiving yards. Coach Knute Rockne called Miller “the greatest open field runner I ever had.” Miller was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1970.

The county has had several professional players as well.

Ben Davis attended Defiance College before being drafted by the Cleveland Browns in 1967. Davis garnered All-Pro and All-Conference honors. He played as a defensive back and cornerback. In 1967, he led the league by averaging 12.7 yards per punt return and in punt return touchdowns having 1. In 1968, he led the NFL in interception return yards at 1,968. He earned All-Pro and All Conference honors in 1968. In 1974, he went to the Detroit Lions and played until 1976.

The year 2022 was a big one for football fans from Defiance County.

Hicksville graduate Garrett Crall was signed as a free agent by the Miami Dolphins. The former All-Ohio player was captain his senior year on the University of Wyoming football team. A defensive end, Crall had a total of 191 tackles and 16 sacks in his college career.

Ayersville graduate Dauson Dales signed with the Parma Panthers of the Italian Football League in 2022 after playing for Ohio Dominican University. In his college career, he had a total of 376 tackles, 172 of them solo. Dales, a linebacker, was named Great Midwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year while attending Ohio Dominican University. The Panthers made it to the the Central European Football League Championship in 2022, where Dales blocked the first possession punt of the opposing team.

Start your engines

The first car Sam Hornish Jr. raced in the Indy Racing League is on display in the lobby of Hornish Brothers in Defiance. The 1999 G-Force Oldsmobile Aurora was driven for the first three races of the 2000 season.

Defiance native Sam Hornish Jr. started his racing career at age 11 with go-karts. He went on to win the World Karting Association’s U.S. Grand National Championship in 1994. He then headed to the big leagues in 2000 with the IndyCar Series.

In 2001, 2002 and 2006, he was the champion of the series. He won 19 races from 2000-2007. In 2006, Hornish won the esteemed Indianapolis 500. When he left the series in 2007, he held the record for most career wins at 19. Hornish also raced in the Xfinity Series (fka Busch) and the Sprint Cup Series.

In NASCAR, Hornish made 167 starts. In the Xfinity series, he had five wins and 38 top-five finishes in 120 starts. He finished second in the championship in 2013. He also raced in the 2008 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for Bobby Hamilton Racing and took part in the International Race of Champions. Hornish last professionally in 2017.

He drove for several teams including PDM Racing, Panther Racing, Team Penske, Richard Petty Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing and others.

Hornish earned several honors in addition to his championship. In 2004, he was the IndyCar Series’ Most Popular Driver, and in 2006, he garnered the Scott Brayton Award.

Hornish was inducted into the Cooper Tires U.S.F2000 National Championship Hall of Fame in 2012. In 2021, Hornish was nominated for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame.

Entering the ring

Defiance native Luke Zachrich was a professional mixed martial artist from 2006 until his retirement in 2014. Zachrich competed in the middleweight division in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). He was the middleweight champion of the Xtreme Fighting Organization and Ultimate Victory Challenge. His fighting style was a mixture of kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which led him to a professional record of 14 wins and 4 losses.

Zachrich also was featured in the reality TV Show “Ultimate Fighter” in 2008. A blackbelt, Zachrich has garnered several awards from the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation including its Pan American Bronze Medal, American Nationals Silver Medal and was named American Nationals No-Gi Absolute Champion.

In addition to mixed martial arts, Zachrich was a professional boxer for a short time, taking bouts in 2014 and 2016. He had 3 wins – 2 by knockout – and no losses.

He was not the only boxer from Defiance.

Super lightweight Raymond “Lil’ Rock” Castaneda III boxed from 2017-19. He made his debut at the Seagate Center in Toledo against Rustin Jones in November 2017 winning by knockout. Castaneda would go on to have 6 wins and no loses and 2 knockouts in his career.

Real ringers

Defiance’s Fred Brown was inducted into the Ohio Horseshoe Pitchers Association (OHPA) Hall of Fame in 1998. He played horseshoes for 50 years and made the men’s championship group once in the sport. Brown, who passed in 2020, “loved the sport,” said daughter Amy (Brown) Francis. “He loved to participate in the sport,” she said. “He got me and my brother started. He was one of those great guys that just loved the sport.” Amy Frances also said her father could be called a a matchmaker – in a way– for her and her husband, Alan.

The Francis’ can be called the golden couple of the horseshoe world for many reasons.

Amy Frances has participated in more than 30 World Horseshoe Tournaments. She has finished in the top five of the world championship several times including placing second in 2000, 2001 and 2003. From 1998-2003, she never finished less than fourth. In 2003, she was inducted into the OHPA’s Hall of Fame. She became a member of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Hall of Fame in 2011. In 2009, Amy Francis was awarded the OHPA Sportsmanship Award. She is on the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association’s Hall of Fame Committee for 2022. Amy Francis has won the OHPA’s Women’s Championship in 2001, 2017-19, 2013, 2011, 2006-07, 2000-04, 1994-96 and in 1992. This year’s championship tournament has yet to be held. In her last state championship, she had 6 wins and no losses, with a ringer percentage of 72.5. She has pitched several 90 percent ringer games in her career.

Alan Francis has been called by the New York Times “perhaps the most dominant athlete in any sport in the country.” He has won the World Horseshoe Men’s Championship 25 times, the most anyone has won it. His world wins started in 1989 when he was 19. He also won in 1993, 1995-99, 2001, 2003-10, 2012-2019 and 2021. There was no tournament in 2020, and this year’s tournament will be held later this year. Before he turned 18, he also had won four Junior Boys World Championships. The first win was when he was 12 in 1982. Alan Frances has pitched in 40 world events. He has won the OHPA Men’s Championship in 2002-21, 1996-2000. In 2021, he won with a 6-0 record with a ringer percentage of 83.8. His ringer percentage averages around 90 in competitions. In 1996, he was inducted into both the OHPA and National Horseshoe Pitchers Association’s Hall of Fames, and in 2011, earned the Francis Asher Memorial Award.

The Francis family may earn more honors this year as the World Horseshoe Pitching Tournament will be held July 11-23.

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